Cons and games, lies and deceit.
Those aren’t just words to me, but a way of life.
For years, I’ve tried to escape—to be other than my father’s daughter—but time and again I have failed.
Maybe I haven’t tried hard enough. Maybe I didn’t want to. I like the rush, after all. The challenge.
I have more than twenty years of the grift behind me, and I thought I knew it all. Thought I understood risk. Thought I knew the definition of danger.
Then I saw him.
Raw and carnal, dark and dangerous.
I didn’t know risk until I met him. Didn’t understand danger until I looked into his eyes. Didn’t comprehend passion until I felt his touch.
I should have stayed away, but how could I when he was everything I craved? When I knew that he could fulfill my darkest fantasies?
I wanted him, plain and simple.
And so I set out to play the most dangerous game of all. . . .
I stood in the middle of the newly opened Edge Gallery, my heels planted on the polished wood floor and the brilliant white walls of the main exhibit space coming close to blinding me.
Around me, politicians mingled with hipsters as they buzzed from one painting to the next like bees around a flower. Male waiters in sharply creased tuxes carried wine-topped trays with purpose, while their similarly attired female counterparts offered tasty morsels that were such works of art themselves it seemed a shame to eat them.
Tonight’s sparkling gala celebrated the opening of this newest addition to Chicago’s well-known River North gallery district, and everyone who was anyone was here. And not just because of the art. No, the crowd tonight had come as much to mingle with the owners as to celebrate the opening.
And why not? Tyler Sharp and Cole August were among Chicago’s elite. They, along with their friend and frequent business partner Evan Black, made up the knights—a triangle of power within the Chicago stratosphere. The fact that their power stemmed from both legitimate and illegitimate means only added to their dark, edgy coolness.
Not that the illegitimate side of the equation was public knowledge, but it did add a sort of mysterious sheen to these deliciously sexy men who made the press drool. I knew the truth because I was best friends with Evan’s fiancée, Angelina Raine, and that friendship had spread to include all the knights. At least, that’s what Angie and the knights believe. In reality, I’d realized the guys weren’t squeaky-clean entrepreneurs within a day of meeting them.
Like knows like, after all.
For that matter, like attracts like. At least, that’s what I hoped. Because although I truly did want to celebrate the opening, I’d really come here for one purpose, and one purpose only: to finally and completely get Cole August’s attention—and then get him in my bed.
Not that I was progressing like lightning toward that goal. I’d come without a solid plan—something I never do—and after ninety minutes of mingling, I’d spoken only fourteen words to Cole, and that was at the door as I’d entered. I knew there were fourteen words, because I’d played the encounter—I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a conversation—over and over in my head. A form of mental torture, I guess, as I wallowed in my own insipidness.
“I’m so thrilled for you both.”
“Thanks, Kat. We’re glad you could make it.”
“Me, too. Well, I’ll let you mingle. Later.”
I shook my head at myself. Honestly, if my father had been around to overhear that exchange, he would have disowned me on the spot. Hadn’t he taught me the art of making small talk? Of pulling people in? Of getting close so that you can get what you want?
Planning and focus have always been second nature to me. I’d grown up in the grift, and I’d known the ins and outs of designing a long con even before I knew my multiplication tables.
Tonight wasn’t about a con, though. Tonight was about me.
And apparently that one little fact was enough to throw me entirely off my game.
I shifted slightly so that I could look at the object of my mission. I found him easily enough—Cole August is not the kind of man who blends. Right then he was working the room, discussing art with both serious buyers and casual friends.
Art was his passion, and it was easy to see how much tonight meant to him. The two featured artists—a South Side tagger whom Cole had found and pulled out of the ghetto and a world-renowned painter who specialized in hyperrealism—worked the crowd alongside him.
Cole moved with a raw power and casual arrogance that both suggested his own South Side upbringing and also defied it. I knew that he’d once been entrenched in a gang, but he’d pulled himself out of the muck to become one of the most powerful men in Chicago. As I watched him, it was easy to see the confidence and grace that got him there.
I stared, a little mesmerized, a little giddy, as Cole continued through the room. He was dressed simply in black jeans that showed off his perfect ass, and a white T-shirt that both accented the dark caramel skin of his mixed-race background, and subtly reminded the guests that Cole hadn’t been born to money and privilege. He wore his hair short, in an almost military style buzz cut, and the style drew attention to the slightly tilted eyes that missed nothing, not to mention the hard planes of his cheekbones and that wide, firm mouth that seemed molded to drive a woman crazy.
He was sex on a stick—and all I wanted was to taste him.
I’ve never played the relationship game, and I’ve rarely craved men. That bit of self-denial stemmed more from pragmatism than any lack of libido on my part. Why torment them and myself by revealing my sexual quirks, and then suffer the inevitable angst and hurt feelings when they’re unable to achieve what a sixty-dollar cylinder of vibrating rubber could manage so easily?
And to be honest, most of the men who crossed my path were less stimulating—both intellectually and physically—than anything tucked away in my toy drawer.
Cole, however, was different.
Somehow, he’d snuck into my thoughts. He’d filled my senses. I’d felt that tug the first time I’d laid eyes on him, and that was years ago. But over the past few months, he’d become an obsession, and I knew that if I wanted to get clear of him, I had to push through.
I had to have him.
I’d come here tonight determined to get what I wanted—and now I was more than a little perturbed at myself for not having immediately leaped fully and confidently into the dark waters of seduction.
I knew why I hadn’t, of course. It was because I wasn’t certain that my advances would be welcome, and I wasn’t a big fan of disappointment.
Yes, I thought that he was attracted to me—I’d felt that zing when our hands brushed and the trill of electricity in the air when we stood close together.
At least once or twice when I’d caught his eyes the illusion of friendship had turned to ash—burned away by the heat I’d seen in him. But those moments lasted only a few brief and fluttering seconds. Just enough to whet my appetite, and to make me fervently hope that the heat I saw was real—and not simply the desperate reflection of my own raging desire.
Because what assurance did I have that it wasn’t all me? Maybe I was projecting attraction where none existed and, like a moth, I was going to get singed when I fluttered too close to the flame.
Still, I’d never know if I didn’t go all in and find out. Maybe I’d fumbled the ball with my crappy conversation, but the night was young, and I gave myself a mental pep talk as I wandered the gallery, gliding through the flotsam and jetsam of gossip and business talk. Everything from catty comments about other women’s clothing, to speculation as to the best place for a post-gala meal, to praise for the undeniable skill of the various artists represented at the opening.
A few people I knew casually made eye contact, politely shifting their stance as if to welcome me into their conversation. I pretended not to notice. Right then, I was lost in my own head, trying to wrap my mind around what I wanted and how I intended to get it.
The gallery was shaped like a T, with the main exhibit hall—which displayed the work of tonight’s two featured artists—being the stem, and the crossbar being the more permanent exhibits. I’d been to the gallery before, so I knew the general layout, and I wandered the length of the room to where the two wings intersected.
There was a velvet rope blocking guests from entering the permanent area, but I’ve never paid much attention to rules. I slipped between the wall and the brass post that held the rope secure, then moved to the right so that I would be out of sight of the rest of the guests. After all, I wasn’t in the mood for either a lecture on proper party etiquette or company.
The last time I’d been in this area, the section had still been under construction. The walls had been unpainted and the glass ceiling had been covered with a dark, protective film. The long, narrow room had been gloomy and a little claustrophobic. Now it extended in front of me like a walkway to paradise.
Tonight, the glass ceiling was transparent. Outside, lights mounted on the roof shone down to provide the illusion of daylight, and all around me the area glowed with artificial sunlight and the bright colors of the various pieces on display.
Beautifully polished teak benches ran down the center of the room, each separated by bonsai trees, so that both the seating and the decoration were as artistic as the architecture and the contents. And yet there was nothing overpowering about the room. Even tonight, with the hum of voices flowing in from the main gallery, I felt the blissful freedom of solitude.
With a sigh, I sat on one of the benches, realizing only as I did that I’d chosen this spot for a specific purpose. The image in front of me had caught my eye. No, more than that. It had compelled me. Drawn me in. And now I sat and studied it.
I knew a little bit about art, though not as much as my father. And certainly not as much as Cole. But it’s fair to say that I’ve paid my dues in the kind of art gallery that caters to clients who embody that perfect trifecta of too much money, too much time, and too much property.
I couldn’t count the number of days I’d spent in high heels and a pencil skirt, extolling the virtues of a particular piece. I’d rave about the astounding deal the buyer could get because our client—“no, no, I can’t share his identity, but if you read the European papers, you’ve surely heard of him”—was desperate to unload an original master that had been in the family for generations. “Hard times,” I’d say with a resigned shake of my head. “You understand.”
And the buyer would frown and nod sympathetically, all the while thinking about this amazing bargain, and how they could one-up the Smiths at the next garden party.
I’d never sold an actual work by an actual master in my life, but the pieces I had passed held an equal appeal, at least to the eye if not to the investment portfolio.
But this painting before me put all the others I’d dealt with to shame. It was the view of a woman from behind. She was seated on the edge of a fountain, so that from the artist’s perspective she was seen through shimmering beads of water that seemed to form a living curtain. A kind of barrier between her and the world. It gave the illusion that she was a creature of pure innocence, and yet that was not an asset. Instead, her innocence rendered her untouchable, even though it was clear that all anyone had to do was slip through the water to reach her.
The angle of view was such that her hips were not visible. Instead we saw only the curve of her waist, the unblemished skin of her back, and her blond hair that fell in damp curls that ended near her shoulder blades.
There was something familiar about her. Something magnetic. And for the life of me, I had no clue what it was.
“It’s one of my favorites.”
The familiar deep voice pulled me from my trance. Flustered, I turned to face Cole, then immediately wished I hadn’t. I should have taken a moment to prepare myself first, because I heard my own gasp as I sank deep into those chocolate eyes.
“I—” I closed my mouth. Clearly I had lost all ability to think or speak or function in society. I fervently hoped the floor would just open up and swallow me, but I’d be okay with an alien abduction, too.
Neither of those things happened, though, and I found myself just sitting there staring at him while the corner of his mouth—that gorgeous, rugged, kissable mouth—twitched with what I could only assume was amusement.
“I’m sorry I slipped back here. It was getting too crowded in there for me, and I needed some air.”
Concern flickered across his face. “Is something wrong, Catalina? You looked preoccupied.”
“I’m fine,” I said, though I trembled a bit, unnerved as always when he called me by my given name. Not that he actually knew my real name. As far as Cole and all my friends in Chicago were concerned, I was Katrina Laron. Catalina Rhodes didn’t exist to them. For that matter, she didn’t exist for me, either. She hadn’t for a long, long time.
Sometimes, I missed her.
About eight months ago, a group of us had been having dinner together. Cole started talking about an upcoming trip to Los Angeles, and how he intended to visit Catalina Island. I don’t even remember the details of the conversation, but by the end of it, my new nickname had stuck.
I’d rolled my eyes and pretended to be irritated, but the truth of it was that I liked the intimacy of hearing my birth name on his lips. It meant that we shared a secret, he and I, even if I was the only one of us who knew it.
Not that Catalina was an exclusive nickname. Cole also called me “blondie” and “baby girl,” though he tended to reserve the latter for Angie, who had been a teenager when he’d met her.
Catalina was my favorite of the endearments, of course. But I wasn’t picky. However Cole wanted to mark me was fine by me.
Right then, he stood to my right and frowned down at me. “I’m fine,” I repeated, with a little more force this time. “Really. I was lost in thought, and you startled me. But I’m back now.”
“I’m glad.” His voice was smooth, almost prep-school cultured. He’d worked at it, I knew. He rarely talked about the time he’d spent in gangs, the things he’d had to overcome. Hell, he barely even talked about the two years he’d spent in Italy, studying art on scholarship. But it had all come together to make the man. And right then, in that moment, I was glad he never talked about it to the press or his clients. But I fervently wished that he would talk about it to me.
Yeah, I was a mess all right.
I stood up, then wiped my hands down the red material that clung provocatively to my thighs. I hoped it looked like I was smoothing my skirt. Instead, I was drying my sweaty palms.
“I’m going to go track down one of the girls with sushi,” I said. “I didn’t eat dinner and I think I’m feeling a little light-headed.” I didn’t mention that he was the reason my head was spinning.
“Stay.” He reached out and closed his fingers around my wrist. His hand was huge, but his grip was surprisingly tender. His skin was rough, though, and I remembered how much of the work in the gallery he’d done himself, assembling frames, hanging canvases, moving furniture. Not to mention painting his own canvases. He must spend hours holding a wooden brush, moving carefully and meticulously in order to get exactly what he wanted—color, texture, total sensuality.
Slowly, as if he was intentionally trying to drive me crazy, he let his eyes drift over me. I fought the urge to shiver—to close my eyes and soak in the fantasy of this deliberate caress.
Instead, I watched his face. Watched his expression grow hot, almost feral, as if he wanted nothing more in that moment than to touch me—to take me.
Do it, I thought. Right here, right now, just do it and let me have thought and reason back. Take me, dammit, and free me.
But he didn’t pull me close. Didn’t press his hands to my ass and grind his cock against my thighs. Didn’t slam me against the wall and press his mouth to mine while one hand closed tight around my breast and the other yanked up my skirt.
He did nothing but look at me—and in looking made me feel as though he’d done all those things.
He also made me feel better about the abuse I’d put my credit card through to buy this outfit. The dress was fire engine red, had a plunging neckline, and hugged every one of my curves. And while I might sometimes think that my curves were more appropriate for a 1940s film noir wardrobe, I can’t deny that I filled out the dress in a way that Cole seemed to appreciate.
I’d worn my mass of blond curls clipped up, letting a few tendrils dangle loose to frame my face. My red stilettos perfectly matched the dress and added four inches to my already ample height, putting me just about eye level with this man. If you looked up “fuck me heels” in the dictionary, a picture of these shoes would be on the page.
I wanted to stay right there, lost in the way he was looking at me.
At the same time, I wanted to run. To get away and regroup. To figure out how in hell I could manage to control a seduction when I couldn’t even control myself.
Escape won out, and I tugged gently at my arm to free it.
To my surprise, his grip tightened. I frowned at him, a little confused, a whole lot hopeful.
“I’d like to hear your thoughts.”
“The painting,” he said. “What do you think of it?”
“Oh.” Cold disappointment washed over me. “The painting.”
I gave my arm another tug and this time, to my regret, he released me.
“You like it?”
“I love it,” I said, both automatically and truthfully. “But there’s something—I don’t know—sad about it.”
His brows lifted slightly, and for a moment I thought he looked mildly amused. As if he’d understood the punch line of a joke a few moments before I did. Except I never got there at all.
“It’s not sad?” I asked, turning back to look at the image.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Art is what you make of it. If you think it’s sad, then I suppose it is.”
“What is it to you?”
“Longing,” he said.
I turned from the painting to him, sure that my face showed my question.
“Not sadness so much as desire,” he said, as if that explained his response. “Her desires are like gemstones, and she holds them close, and each one presses sharp edges into the palm of her hand.”
I thought about that as I looked back at the painting. “Do you think that way because you are an artist? Or are you an artist because you think that way?”
He chuckled, the sound both mild and engaging. “Shit, Catalina. I don’t know. I don’t think I could separate one from the other.”
“Well, the most eloquent thing I can say is that I like it. I realize it’s not one of the featured pieces, but I hope you’re going to show more of the artist’s work. It’s compelling.” I leaned closer, looking for a signature on the canvas or an information card on the wall. I found neither. “Who’s the artist?”
“Don’t worry, blondie,” Cole said, his eyes flicking quickly to the painting. “We’ll keep him around.” Now I was certain I heard amusement in his voice, and since I wasn’t sure what the joke was, it ticked me off.
I cocked my head, feeling more in control now that he was irritating me. “Okay, tell me. What am I missing?”
He moved to step in front of me, blocking the painting. Hell, blocking everything. He filled all of my senses, making me a little drunk merely from his proximity. From the sight of him before me and the scent of his cologne, all spice and wood and male. Even the echo of his voice played in my head, those radio-quality tones making me want to shiver.
I didn’t have his touch, but the sensation of his hand upon my skin still lingered, and I clung tight to the memory. And as for taste—well, a girl could only hope.
Eternity passed in the space of seconds, and when he spoke, there was a musing note to his voice, as if he were speaking more to himself than to me. “How do you do it?”
“Do what?” I asked, but by the time the words escaped my lips, the spell was broken, and it was as if he hadn’t spoken at all.
“It’s an important night for Tyler and me,” he said, his voice now tight with formality. “I’m glad you came, but I should get back to the rest of the guests.”
The abrupt change in his tone disappointed me, but I clung greedily to the words themselves, and tried to ignore the rest. He’d said I’m glad. Not we’re glad.
And I, apparently, had reached a new level of pathetic if I’d sunk so low as to be analyzing pronouns.
“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world,” I said, hoping my own voice didn’t reveal the loose grip I had on my sanity.
He flashed me that killer smile, then turned toward the main gallery. But after only two steps, he stopped, then looked back at me. “By the way, you owe me,” he said, and this time there was no denying the humor on his face.
“Oh, really? And why is that?”
“How is it you started working here three months ago and I didn’t notice? That’s not like me at all. And, frankly, Kat, if you’d spent that much time at my side, I assure you it would have caught my attention.”
That spark of heat was back in his voice, but I barely noticed it. Instead, I’d turned a little cold. A string of curses whipped through my mind, and I had to force myself not to spit out a choice one or two.
Instead, I did what I’d been trained my whole life to do—I got my shit together and ran with it. “Oh my god, Cole, I’m so sorry. I meant to mention weeks ago that the mortgage company might be calling, but I got caught up in helping Angie with wedding prep stuff, and now I’m closing next week and I’ve been packing, and then—”
“It’s okay,” he said. “I get it.”
“It’s just that my hours at the coffee shop haven’t ever been steady, and I didn’t want the underwriting people to think I don’t have the means to make my payments.”
“It’s okay,” he repeated. “Buying a house is a very big deal. It’s cool. It’s been well over a week since they called, and I verified everything. If they haven’t requested any more information from you by now, then I’d say you’re good to go.”
He met my eyes once more, trapping me in his gaze just a little too long for comfort. Whatever humor had been in his face before had vanished. Instead, I saw only a vibrant, sensual intensity. “But like I said, you owe me.”
I swallowed, and despite the dryness in my mouth, I managed to form words. “Whatever you want,” I said, and I could only hope that he understood the full meaning of my words.
His gaze lingered a moment longer. Then he inclined his head as if in dismissal. “I’ll see you back in the main gallery.”
Once again he turned and walked away from me.
This time, he didn’t look back.